Review: The Silmarillion

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Publisher: George Allen and Unwin
Genre: Fantasy

Little introduction is necessary for J.R.R. Tolkien’s two most popular works: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Both books sold hundreds of millions of copies worldwide and created acclaim and success for the burgeoning fantasy genre. Following Tolkien’s death, though, his son Christopher Tolkien took the massive undertaking of sorting through his father’s estate. He would spend over fifty years assembling and editing drafts of his father’s unfinished works: The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, The History of Middle-earth, The Fall of Arthur, The Lost Road, translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, and an entire library of ancillary lore novels covering every detail of Middle-earth’s history and development. In releasing these incomplete and convoluted works, he gifted the world a treasure trove of knowledge and a deeper understanding of his father’s artistic vision.

 

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: Religiously influenced themes of evil, corruption, and greed as well as love, courage, and sacrifice
Violence: Themes of warfare, conflict, death, destruction, and physical mutation
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Themes of valor, justice, love, and goodness

Review

A Brief History of Tolkien’s Published Works

When The Hobbit was published in 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien was thrust onto the international stage as one of the most successful writers of his age. This would be followed by the subsequent mega-success of his legendary Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1954. Through both of these adventures, readers are treated to epic adventures through the world of Middle-earth. They’re introduced to wizards, dwarves, elves, dragons, and all manners of evil that wish to conquer the free peoples of this world. Those stories were epic adventures and runaway successes. They became some of the most popular fiction of the 20th century and launched the high fantasy genre into international acclaim.

As successful as these books were, Tolkien’s wish at the time was to pair these adventures with another book he’d been working on since first conceiving Middle-earth. His publishers were already over-encumbered by the 1200 page draft of his second book which they were forced to break into three and sell separately (against Tolkien’s wishes). His third book, though ambitious, didn’t interest his publishers, who wanted more successful adventure stories. That book wouldn’t be published until after Tolkien’s death. His son, Christopher, would edit and publish it posthumously in 1977.

The Silmarillion was conceived as the origin story of Middle-earth, and in many ways represents Tolkien’s most potent and complex work of fiction. Upon its release, it was lambasted as an overly serious, complex slog that missed the appeal of his two previous books. It was subsequently the worst-selling book of his saga. While The Hobbit sold upwards of 100 million copies, The Silmarillion is estimated to have sold only about a million copies and isn’t widely read outside of hardcore Tolkien fan circles.

 

Despite its relative obscurity, The Silmarillion was actually the first book Tolkien dreamed up in his saga. He was creating his various creatures’ languages and wrote the “Fall of Gondolin” chapter as far back as his service in World War I. His goal was to set a stage for his fictional languages to be used, but he also wanted to create something greater than a children’s story. He wanted to fabricate an ancient myth in the style of Greek/Celtic/Germanic legends but with a distinctly English flare and born of a Christian morality. His world carries his distinctly cynical Catholic moralism into the Pagan imagery of Pre-Christian Europe to fashion a tale of love and valor set against the long march of history.

The History of Middle-earth in The Silmarillion

A comprehensive description of the work is in order, given its complexity. That said, these spoilers would not ruin the experience of reading The Silmarillion for the first-timer. On the contrary, some understanding of the narrative’s skeletal structure would make the details easier to comprehend. After all, The Silmarillion is one of the densest works of high fantasy you will ever read.

The title is a reference to the Silmarils (or Silmarilli), three magic stones that serve as the macguffins of an extended time in Middle-earth before disappearing. This book covers a large time period split into four sections: the songs Ainulindalë and Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. These four sections cover the history of Middle-earth from its creation myth to the defeat of Sauron at the beginning of the Third Age.

The songs of the first section reference the creation of Middle-earth by the monotheistic God Eru Ilúvatar. By his will, he creates a pantheon of demigods who sing the Earth into creation. These twelve children of Ilúvatar are immensely powerful beings dwelling over one aspect of Middle-earth. Of the group, one sings his verse in dissonance and sows confusion into the song. His name is Melkor, and he will become the most powerful, infamous being in the history of Middle-earth.

With the beginning of The Silmarillion proper, the creation of Middle-earth, and the beginning of the first age, the gods descend to the undying lands of Valinor in the far-west ocean. Middle-earth is initially formless. The demigods begin forging the world, and beings of Middle-earth (the Elves, Dwarves, and Man) emerge. Melkor, however, starts a darker mission to distort that world and remakes himself as Morgoth, the first dark lord of Middle-earth. He founds the mighty fortress Angband, sows his evil into the Arda (Earth) itself, creates the mighty Balrogs and Dragons, and mutates Elves into Orcs. He uses his strength as the strongest of the demigods to thwart his brethren’s plans and eventually betrays them by destroying a tree of light in Valinor and stealing the Silmarils. In doing so, he plunges Middle-earth into a temporary darkness, allowing him to further spread his influence.

For thousands of years, Morgoth is left to rule the world. It is during this time some of the greatest stories of Middle-earth’s history are forged. Morgoth is injured briefly in an epic duel with Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, before taking the immortal Elf’s life. He tortures Hurin, the greatest warrior of his age, by cursing his children. He also leads great wars against the Elves and holds his own against their wrath for centuries.

The dark lord comes close to defeat on numerous occasions, though. During the legendary courtship of Beren and Lúthien (a human man and an elvish woman), a captured Lúthien pries one of Morgoth’s Silmarils from his crown while he sleeps and escapes his fortress. The loss of one of the three legendary gems isn’t enough to weaken his resolve, however. The conflict between the Elves and Morgoth rages through the First Age of Middle-earth until the height of Morgoth’s reign. He destroys the Elves’ hidden city of Gondolin in a brutal siege. In the aftermath of the loss, a lone Elf journeys to Valinor under the threat of death to finally end Morgoth’s reign. Ultimately, it takes the entire strength of Middle-earth, including the gods, to defeat Morgoth and bring about an end to his reign.

Morgoth’s influence over Middle-earth would sparsely end, though. His evil has infected its beings, corrupting it to a fate of degeneration and diminishment, and his agents re-consolidate power throughout the Second Age. With his defeat, his greatest lieutenant, Sauron, begins his own path to power, which will last for the next two ages of Middle-earth.

The Second Age of Middle-earth brings the rise of the greatest kingdom of Men in history. As detailed in the third section, Akallabêth, the human kingdom of Númenor grows incredible influence and power. It becomes a great kingdom in the western region and founds its capital on an island at the nearest point between Valinor and Middle-earth. The men of Númenor (Aragorn’s ancestors) become great men blessed with unnaturally long lives and technological prosperity.

Unfortunately, greed brings about the downfall of this long-lived empire. The men of the west go to war with Sauron and seemingly defeat him. As a prisoner in Númenor, he brings the royalty under his influence, corrupting them to sacrifice children in honor of Morgoth. Sauron also plans to lead men on a crusade against the gods in Valinor itself. Ilúvatar himself destroys the kingdom of Númenor to put an end to Sauron’s influence over men.

With the final section of The Silmarillion, the story begins to overlap with the events preceding The Lord of the Rings. We’re treated to a more detailed story of Sauron crafting the rings of power to seize control of Middle-earth by corrupting the leaders of the Elves, Dwarves, and Men. His plan is only partially successful as the nine kings of Men are swayed to his side for the duration of the next age, becoming the Nazgul. As we see in The Lord of the Rings, a final alliance of Men and Elves is set against Sauron’s forces and manage to temporarily destroy him. However, they fail to destroy the Ring of Power, and the last king of Men is killed by Orcs. Thus ends the Second Age of Middle-earth and begins the Third.

Meaning in the Complicated Mythology

The story of The Silmarillion is long, complicated, and packed with details. I don’t imagine most casual readers would find the book pleasant. Even someone who only read this summary can see there are a lot of large, obtuse nouns. It can be an intimidating read. That said, the details of this epic story are rich and rewarding. They echo the events of the two previous books and reveal the full scale of the world in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The question arises, though, what was the point of 365 pages of Elvish lineage and the history of dark lords and gods who don’t appear in the two more popular books?

As always, Tolkien’s work shouldn’t be considered a direct allegory. He infamously HATED allegory as a concept and never intended his work to be such. That said, the allusions The Silmarillion makes to the Bible, classical mythology, and pagan legends are rich and reveal a tapestry of ethical meaning. The events in The Silmarillion echo the events of the Bible and legends at numerous points. “The Fall of Númenor” bears resemblance to the story of the Tower of Babel. The temptation to be like God brings His wrath and results in destruction of humanity’s greatest empire. Morgoth’s corruption of Arda echos the fallen state of man while the Elves’ fall from Valinor bears a resemblance to the Miltonian fall of man. The dense structure is reminiscent of the long genealogies of the Old Testament:

And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.

– Genesis 4:18

Entire character’s lives are summarized in no more than a paragraph. Larger, more consequential stories may have an entire chapter dedicated to them, but that’s all we see of some important figures in this universe. Even so, the passing of time in Middle-earth is constant. The First Age covered thousands of years of history. The crushing weight of these characters fighting the same battles against Morgoth over millenia becomes exhausting and heartbreaking as they endure loss after loss. Herein lies the point. These stories are mythic in their scale and tragic in their consequences. They call to mind classical Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex where character’s faults crush them and the audience is left to ponder man’s fallen state.

Morgoth’s Lucifer-like Fall and the Tragedy of Fallen Men 

Morgoth himself is clearly a Lucifer figure. As Tolkien describes him: “It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as its own, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality.”

The dark lord may be the most powerful creature in Middle-earth, but he fears death more than any other being in existence. He is also deeply jealous of his creator’s power and desires a kingdom apart from Ilúvatar. Ceasing his own power, he forever traps the free peoples of Middle-earth in a cycle of death, war, suffering, and diminishment which lasts until the end of the Earth. Men might become powerful and technologically advanced, but their nature haunts them for all time.

For all the joy and adventure in the previous books, Middle-earth is quite melancholy if you check its background, a place of vast disrepair and dying lineages. The curse of living here is the curse of living in the ruins of a greater society and of being keenly aware of your own eventual doom. Men are fated to die, but they fear death to the point of evil. The Elves live forever unless killed, adding a grander weight to mortality. They are immortal, yet their fates are not their own. These two states of being are clearly in tension with one another. On the other hand, as we see in the story of “Beren and Lúthien,” a path to victory is forged in the most unlikely of places. All the armies of Man and Elf can barely land a scratch on Morgoth, but the love of a mortal and an immortal accomplishes greater victory in one moment than the free peoples do for an entire age.

Sadly, the victories of goodness don’t feel prominent in the book’s structure. Time is Morgoth’s greatest weapon, and the ages-long struggle to beat him costs millions of lives. Elves and Men both look small before him. The unintentional side effect of such a long-winded, exhaustive narrative set over thousands of years is Morgoth becomes the most consistent, relatable, and fleshed-out character in the entire novel. His presence echos the poetic depths and motivations of Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As William Blake famously noted of that book, Milton’s lavish and tragic depiction of Lucifer made him “a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Put simply, Milton’s depiction of Lucifer suggested some levels of identification between Milton and the great fallen angel.

In some ways, I can’t help but accuse Tolkien of doing the same thing. Sauron never got such a comprehensive character motivation in The Lord of the Rings or even in The Silmarillion. He’s a lesser evil than his master, and there’s nothing tragic about Sauron. He’s never given a personality; all we know about him is he’s constantly seeking power. He was always the horrific shadow in the distant East. Morgoth’s rise and fall is epic and sweeping. His duels are huge, and his sieges impressive. He’d be almost appealing if you didn’t see the crushed Elves and Men left in his horrific wake.

I would never accuse Tolkien of being a closet Satanist, but his cynicism is overpowering in the narrative. This cynicism may come from an honest understanding of humanity’s nature and failings. An unfortunate consequence, though, is a darker atmosphere almost seeming to revel in its immense, nearly omnipresent villain.

Still, that tragedy isn’t unfounded. We are fallen creatures. Tolkien is always rooting for the small, humble, and loving to win against the ultimate might of man’s corrupt nature. As the author himself writes:

[T]he great policies of world history, the wheels of the world, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom by One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved.

The religious dimensions of The Silmarillion are complex, but the the vision of humanity (and elf-manity?) they portray is rich. These are all beings created in God’s image, yet they are tragically distanced from their creator. They are left needy and under the influence of evil. They don’t know what awaits them in the afterlife. Thus, they’re much like us. Still, a summary cannot do justice to the way this story is delivered to the reader.

Depth and Accessibility

I should say that The Silmarillion does have some massive disadvantages. Its density and complexity makes the narrative complicated. It’s easy to skim over small but important details in a first reading of the book. At times, the story’s brisk telling of events cause the elf and human characters to feel flat and underdeveloped. Shy of a few individual heroes, most of the great names in Middle-earth’s history are summarized and forgotten. It doesn’t create a compelling read. Lore is fun and perfect for 10-minute snippets on YouTube channels (I highly recommend Men of the West for any Tolkien related lore questions), but it generally isn’t storytelling.

As Film Crit Hulk writes:

Now, I get the allure of telling stories like this. The author wants to build a world and live in a place with a sense of history. I mean, I grew up reading Lord of the Rings every year, I get it… But there’s a reason both I and most others didn’t get through The Silmarillion even once. And that’s because lore is just information.

This is how a lot of people feel attempting to read the book for the first time. Its brief approach to dramatic storytelling can be alienating to casual readers.

God, Evil and the Fate of Mankind

Roundabout though it may be, I think The Silmarillion is a book of immense depth and moral complexity. Tolkien’s depiction of ultimate evil may be a bit too sympathetic in some regards, but his presence is part of the book’s ultimate point. Evil is ever-present in Middle-earth, even after the defeat of its two worst dark lords. Sauron is annihilated by the last alliance, but humanity’s greed makes sure the ring survives for another age. The darkness is not all-powerful, though, because the will of Ilúvatar protects the ultimate fate of men. Though Sauron is able to rise one final time in The Lord of the Rings, he’s defeated by the humble creatures beyond his lust for power. This is the absolution in Middle-earth at the end of long struggles. However, evil lives well beyond this ending.

The Fourth Age, beginning with the final defeat of Sauron, becomes the world we live in now. We are living in the remains of a great world where magic, dragons, and great kings once lived and have since diminished. All that remains of the old world are rules of men and gods of old in the far distance. Even so, can we truly say Morgoth’s influence has faded?

Despite all that, these aren’t books of despair. They’re books of longing and joy. The world is a place protected by a loving God who comes to our aid. As Gandalf says to Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring (regarding his acquisition of the Ring of Power):

“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”

Thus is the moral of The Silmarillion. Evil may be grand and powerful, but it will lose in the end. Humility, courage, and love will always beat the forces of evil, and the God of this world will always come to our aid in the end. These themes echo throughout The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. In understanding the origin of Middle-earth, we see the cycles of struggle and fulfillment repeat on an epic scale. In reading Tolkien’s final masterpiece, we observe the fullness of that fulfillment.

We can always inherit great stories. However, when we find ourselves thrust into the story of the ages, we have a duty to continue the narrative. History is constantly moving, and sometimes it falls into the most unlikely hands. Our own. We may not ask for such adventures, but we embrace them with integrity, humility, and courage. That is our duty as men of the west. Take comfort. There are always forces in the world working in our favor.

Positives

+ Complex, Thematically Deep Narrative that Compliments The Lord of the Rings + Tragic Portrayal of Human Struggle in the Face of Evil + Deep Religious Dimension that Certifies the Power of Love and Courage

Negatives

- Overly Dense Narrative Will Likely Alienate Casual Readers - Story Somewhat Romanticizes Lead Villain by Making him the Most Defined Character

The Bottom Line

The Silmarillion is required reading for Tolkien fans, but casual fans may need to steer clear. As a story written in conjunction with The Lord of the Rings, it echos with depth and tragedy highlighting the themes of his previous, more successful books. It captures a religious dimension which speaks to the tragedy of our own world and casts it on a mythic scale. Be aware of the dense content and decide if this is the kind of story you want to make an effort to read.

 

Story/Plot 9

Writing 10

Editing 10

9.7

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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